From the moment a performer walks onto the stage, he/she is already performing: their gait, their posture, their choice of costume, their acknowledgement of the audience all speak to the eager audience. Alice Sara Ott gives off an endearingly youthful charm, from her hurried stride and gracious manner, from the ingénue glamour, to her bare feet. The unshod pianist is a rarity on the concert circuit, and the eccentric choice takes people aback. Not an affectation, she insists. It helps her feel the pedals, and she is more comfortable that way. The wholly idiosyncratic musical personality seemed entirely at one with the way she passed seamlessly into the auditorium after the interval, dressed in civvies and shod, no doubt passing unnoticed by much of the audience. It’s normal; it’s just the way she does things, a little quirkily, but that’s who she is.

© Jonas Becker
© Jonas Becker

Her performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no 1. in B flat minor, Op. 23 was notable for its immense power. Can she play with weight! She seemed to relish the very heft of the work, on several occasions, levitating off her chair so as to get the vertical height from which to produce the perfect storm of volume and speed that was needed. The audience, in defiance of concert etiquette, burst into a storm of applause after a magnificent end to the first movement. The second movement had a gentle elegance to it, and portrayed no undue self-indulgence in the matter of pacing. She showed off dazzling micro-movements of fingers in the scherzo part, which was thrilling to watch and listen to. The third movement had fire indeed, and one noticed her foot tapping, in sympathy with its exuberant spirit.

The evening had begun with a short tone poem by the Kennedy Center’s composer in residence Mason Bates, entitled Garages of the Valley. Computer geeks who makes music about them? Are they - can they be - the matter of new composition? Why not? Bates embraces all the possibilities inherent in the Cyber Age, such a mark of his openness and engagement with the contemporary world. Bates’ Valley is Silicon Valley, his garages the locales of these original entrepreneurial start-ups. The opening begins with ‘false starts’ (if at first you don’t succeed, try, try fail again), and then, as the momentum of progress develops, eclectic textures from plucking to sustained strings and brass. The finale tries to seize the excitement of the technological zeitgeist, and seeks to convey the optimism of new ideas. It is a short work – ten minutes – and so one would like to see more of such a theme explored, but it is certainly an amuse bouche, ahead of Bates’ debut opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, to be premiered this summer at Santa Fe Opera.

Lastly, there was Rachmaninoff’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor. It is often said that this symphony is sparer than the others, and this is true. There is lushness, but less of it, and less sustained. The orchestra under the baton of Edo de Waart gave us some very full, warm tones, and in the second movement there were some lovely pairings and solos – horn, harp, violin, and a bijou flautist voice. The finale was played energetically and with tightly-reined rhythm.